You Are Being Watched? SPOT Satellite Messaging and Its Consequences

HELP!It’s late fall in the Wasatch Mountains and you decide to sneak in one last epic alpine run before the snow gods transform the peaks into a winter sports paradise. After a lazy morning you set out from Brighton around 10 a.m. and head up Catherine’s Pass. Miles and hours disappear as the effort of massive climbs, exhilaration of reckless descents, and the beauty of your surroundings melt everything else away. Your joy grows as you start to feel snow flakes lightly stink your cheeks. Then, in late afternoon as you bomb down the Plunge, it happens in instant that feels like an eternity. A rock under foot slips. Your toe catches on another rock. Your body pivots and accelerates toward the rocky ground that rests 25% below horizontal. You hear the snap as your femur breaks. You try to stand in the now inch deep snow, but with the storm growing and the sun continuing its relentless approach towards the peaks to your west, you can’t. You think in quick succession, “I should have brought a jacket” and, then, as you start to shiver, “Is this the end?”

Mere moments later you remember that you packed your SPOT Satellite Messenger! You press a button on this 7 ounce wonder and the unit sends an email message containing your location via satellite to an emergency control center. Help is on the way! Or is it?

You see, in less than a year since the SPOT’s introduction there has been enough indiscriminate SPOT calls that emergency responders in National Parks and other wild area are having to develop protocols as to whether and with what level of resources they should respond to SPOT’s two levels of distress calls – Call 911 and Ask For Help – and that’s with only 50,000 SPOT service subscribers worldwide.

One possible example of SPOT overuse would be an experienced hiker being helicoptered out of the Canadian Rockies after using SPOT when he ruptured a patella tendon only 10k from a road while in a familiar area. The below image shows the hiker smiling in front of helicopter.

airlift SPOT satellite messenger
Now we’re not trying to pick on the poor hiker, it surely sucks to blow out a tendon 6+ miles from a lift. Heck, we’d probably have pushed one of the distress buttons on the SPOT satellite messenger, too! However, a close examination of the picture also shows a major problem with having a satellite messaging system in the back country… and that’s that it’s so tempting to use! In this example, the guy was an experienced hiker with a large pack and a sleeping mat, which likely means a tent and a sleeping bag, as well. Given that the hiker’s injury did not threaten his long-term health or life, there’s no reason that he needed to be flown out. One former back country emergency coordinator provides a possible explanation for such unnecessary call as “Most people feel that their situation is much more emergent that it is.”

Of course, one perverse consequence of satellite messengers is that they could actually increase the number of true emergency situations, even if only by a small number. How? By giving individuals, experienced or not, a false sense of confidence. It’s quite easy to imagine individuals would take on grander adventures, take more risks on their adventures, or limit their self-reliance capabilities (by carrying less gear or being less educated) if they have the security of a satellite messenger. Those very same individuals may not realize that emergency assistance may still be many hours or even days away.

You ask, “So what’s the problem here?” Well, our beef’s not the money, if that’s what you’re thinking. Sure, back county rescues cost money, but that’s why we have such personnel and devote such resources. Instead, it’s the risk such calls place on other individuals. First and foremost, emergency personnel face risks in responding to any distress call. In good conditions, these risks might only be extremely low risks, such as a car crash in responding, or the risk of a negligible injury, such as a sprained ankle suffered while hiking to a person in distress. On the other hand, in bad conditions a SPOT call may result in rescuers flying in blizzards, crossing raging rivers, or making risky decisions in an effort to respond to what they must assume to be a life threatening condition. In addition, any distress call may result in another emergency situation receiving fewer resources or a delayed response. That, in turn, may put the health or lives of other distressed individuals at greater risk.

All that said, if we had children, spouses, or parents that we needed to provide for, we might be signing a different tune. Without a doubt, the SPOT satellite messenger is an innovative outdoor emergency device (it won the 2008 Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award for Consumer Electronics) and would be of great use in a true wilderness emergency. We just hope that users are responsible in their use of the SPOT and consider the resources that will be expended and the risks that will be expended in extracting them from any “distress” situation.

More Information

For more information on the SPOT satellite messenger (which is light, rugged, floats, and doesn’t need a cell signal, in case you were wondering) check out:

You can currently pick the SPOT up at Amazon.com for $128… or only $78 after the mail in rebate if you purchase the SPOT before the end of 2008. Two AA batteries and the service fee ($99/year) are not included.

Questions

  • What do you think of SPOT and the future of emergency satellite tracking?
  • Does it represent an unfair appropriation of emergency resources by the few who purchase such devices?
  • On the other hand, is it irresponsible for a parent (or anyone, for the matter) to go out into the wilderness without some such devise? (After all, resources are also spent on post mortem searches.)
  • Have you or a loved one used a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon in an emergency?
  • Do you prefer to experience your trail runs with the extremely small risk of death in a remote area?

Tell us all where you’re at on the issue satellite messengers!